Supreme Court to Hear GPS Surveillance Privacy Case Today
Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Jones case, which has been called the Superbowl of privacy cases. Antoine Jones owned a DC night club and a cocaine selling business, right across the street from police headquarters. The question before the court is whether the FBI needed a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to Jones' car.
There's a lot going on legally with regard to location information and privacy, so I thought it would be worthwhile to review some of the big concepts and court cases, in addition to Jones', that you may want to pay attention to.
There are a few different ways for companies and law enforcement to track an individual's location and movement: through the GPS chip in your cell phone, by triangulating your location based on the cell towers your phone connects to, and via GPS tracking devices - the bugs that we see in movies like Mission Impossible.
One big concept to keep in mind when talking about any of these surveillance options is the third party doctrine. The third party doctrine essentially says that when you share your information with a service provider, you don't have any expectation of privacy related to the data. This means law enforcement may not need a warrant to get access to that information. This legal concept has roots in the 1976 Supreme Court case U.S. vs. Miller which decided we have no expectation of privacy in our bank records, because we willingly give up those records to a third party - the bank.
Using the GPS chip in your phone as a surveillance technique as well as using cell site location information are both very much in a legal gray area. Generally, historic data collected by the cell provider has low legal protection and real-time data has a higher legal bar, although this varies by region. There is a twist on cell site location information; law enforcement has previously set up "stingrays" - or fake cell towers to collect information from cell phones in a general area. This activity creates privacy problems for everyone in the general area, since all cell transmissions can be collected and stored by law enforcement without your knowledge.
The last technique is the old-fashioned bug with a twist; GPS. This is the technology under consideration in the U.S. vs Antoine Jones. These are three distinct tracking methods that may be tied together depending on the how the Supreme Court decides this case.